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Falling in with the wrong crowd

What should you do when your child is hanging out with trouble-makers? And are only children at a disadvantage? Growing Up Healthy answers your queries.
/ Source: contributor

What should you do when your child is hanging out with trouble-makers? And are only children at a disadvantage? Growing Up Healthy answers your queries. Have a question about children's health and well-being? E-mail the author. We’ll post select answers in future columns.

Q: My 14-year-old son is constantly getting in trouble at school with a new friend. Before that friend came along he was always so good. What should I do?

A: Seems silly to mention, but first you have to realize that sometimes our perspectives might be a bit tainted when it comes to our children.

“We tend to see ‘badness’ in others families, corporations, countries and not in our own. That’s a wonderful human — if not American — trait,” says Bradford Brown, a professor of human development in the department of psychology at the University of Wisconsin in Madison. “But teens do select friends. They’re not just simply influenced by their friends. They’re instrumental in deciding who to hang around.”

Long answer short, maybe you didn't realize it, but if your son has befriended a trouble-maker, there were likely problems brewing before the friend ever came into the picture.

The most important issue now, though, is what to do. Or, rather, what not to do. Unless you have reason to believe your son’s activities are extremely dangerous, it’s probably wise not to forbid him from seeing the friend.

“This is an extreme measure and taking it means you run the risk of it back-firing; it could make the friend even more attractive,” warns Nina Mounts, an assistant professor of psychology at Northern Illinois University in DeKalb.

Some parents are also tempted to force their kids to change schools to get away from a “bad” crowd. This tack only works if the teen also wants a fresh start. If not, he or she will simply find another negative crew.

Before you really do anything, sit down and try to have a calm discussion about what’s happening. The point is that you want to find out what’s going on with your son that’s driving him to hang out with a negative kid.

“This is really challenging,” says Brown. “Parents have a vested interest and the teen often gets defensive.” But try to get the ball rolling by saying something like, "I’m concerned about what I see. I don’t understand what you’re doing and why."

"Start with the issue rather than the friend, though,” recommends Brown. “Talk about what you expect as a parent and why your expectations aren’t being met.” For example, if your son isn’t turning in homework, talk about how you expect him to do well in school.

“If that doesn’t get you anywhere, then I’d move to the friend,” he says. Be honest with your son. Tell him that you’ve noticed changes since he started hanging around the friend. “If there are some particulars about the friend’s behavior, it’s good to be fairly honest with that,” he says.

After you have the talk, wait. Brown says it’s not uncommon for teens to tell their parents they’re crazy or that they’re not listening, but if you give them time to cool off and process what you’ve said, they often end up making reasonable decisions.

And, believe it or not, many kids welcome help dealing with their friends even during the teen years and beyond. “A significant number of parents believe that once a child reaches adolescence he knows enough to make his own decisions or that the peer group takes over. But that’s not necessarily true,” says Mounts.

Research has found that teens still want and need their parents to help. “Parents can be a counselor in friendships. They can help talk to their kids about how they might work through and maintain friendships and the consequences of hanging around certain people,” says Mounts.

According to Brown and Mounts, both who study adolescents and friendships, peer influence peeks around age 14. By the time teens reach high school, they’ve developed a stronger sense of self and they’re not as desperate to fit in. So if you keep the dialogue open and if the friend truly is a negative influence, there’s a good chance your son will see it for himself and find better things to do with his time very soon. And what he does with his time could be to hang out with kids who are positive influences.

Brown says friends tend to get blamed for bad behavior but rarely get credit for the opposite. “Peers have a strong influence,” he says, “but remember that can be for the better rather than worse.”

Q: My husband and I are parents of a wonderful 4-year-old boy. He’s an only child. We recently relocated to another state. Shortly before we moved, our son started talking about his "brother." When he wants to claim he’s done something (become a cowboy, ridden a motorcycle, ridden a bull, etc.) he simply says he did it at his brother's house or when he was with his brother. At first he only spoke about his “brother” with us, but lately he's telling other people he has a brother. Others have suggested that our son is suffering because he’s an only child. Should we be concerned about this?

A: You son may be expressing a wish for a brother but next week he may also express a wish for a rocket ship or mounds of candy for breakfast. You can’t grant every wish and it may not be practical or prudent for you to run out and adopt a couple of siblings right now anyhow.

Besides, the fact that he’s an only child isn’t really the reason he’s dreamed up a big bro, says Susan Newman, a psychologist in Metuchen, N.J., and author of "Parenting an Only Child: The Joys and Challenges of Raising Your One and Only."

According to Newman, 65 percent of children by the age of 7 have some kind of fantasy friend. “That’s a huge number and that includes all children, not just only children,” she says.

Any parent would be concerned, however, with a child who makes up bizarre tales. “Pretend friends in most cases are really a coping skill," says Newman. "This is a child’s way of coping with a transition. Having a pretend friend gives young children a chance to be in charge, they can be bossy, set rules, go beyond the limits of what’s allowed. They have somebody else to blame if they break a dish.”

They can also have a pal to help them deal with a big move. In this way, the imaginary brother is a positive. He’s helping your son adjust. That doesn’t mean you play into it, though. “Don’t fill a cereal bowl for your ‘older son’ but also don’t make a huge effort to stop it. In time, the friend will disappear,” says Newman.

If you’re feeling guilt about deciding to have one child, keep this in mind: Single children families are the fastest growing family dynamic in the United States and in most industrialized Western European countries, says Carolyn White, editor-in-chief of Only Child magazine and author of "The Seven Common Sins of Parenting an Only Child."

“So much of raising a healthy, confident, spirited, well-socialized child has to do with how you are as a parent, not whether there are siblings or not,” says White. In fact, singleness only becomes an issue if parents are overprotective, overindulgent or don’t socialize their children early.

What about your embarrassment when your son tells others of the imaginary brother, though? Newman says it’s time to call up your sense of humor. Some kids will have as many as a dozen pretend friends. Just imagine how crazy you’d be if you had a houseful of real kids each with a menagerie of made-up friends and siblings!

Victoria Clayton is a freelance writer based in California and co-author of "Fearless Pregnancy: Wisdom and Reassurance from a Doctor, a Midwife and a Mom," published by Fair Winds Press.